Que. ombudsman finds cheeses’ disposal justified

Quebec’s provincial ombudsman has ruled a massive recall and destruction of Quebec cheeses during last summer’s listeriosis outbreak was a justifiable move on the part of the province’s agriculture ministry.

But Raymonde St-Germain’s report this week also points to substantial gaps in the province’s systems for managing such a crisis, and to the province’s inability to anticipate the economic effects on Quebec’s cheesemakers

St-Germain’s report found the provincial ag, food and fisheries ministry (MAPAQ) was justified in recalling and destroying all cheese products made by two processors, as well as all products that came into contact with the cheese products in question at over 300 retail outlets.

The ombudsman also found the province’s health and social services ministry (MSSS) moved quickly to identify and follow up on cheese-related listeriosis outbreaks in August and September last year, at about the same time as a separate outbreak linked to a Maple Leaf Foods deli meat plant in Toronto.

It’s important to move fast when confronted with a rapid increase in cases of listeriosis poisoning, St-Germain wrote, so MSSS was justified when it publicly declared a listeriosis outbreak in the province on Aug. 19 last year.

Given the rate at which cases of listeriosis poisoning were appearing; that listeria had been found in intact cheese wheels from the two plants in question, which together supplied 300 retail shops; and that analysis showed cross-contamination among several retail shops, MAPAQ’s action in seizing and destroying the cheese was also justified, she wrote.

Sampling impossible

Simply seizing the recalled cheeses until tests on representative samples could be carried out would not have been an effective option, St-Germain wrote.

For representative sampling in this incident, 15 samples of product and from the retail environment would have had to be taken from the 300-odd shops in question, and it would have been impossible to run lab tests on all 4,500 samples at the same time.

Furthermore, she wrote, in a representative sampling regime, there would still have remained the risk of listeria contamination in the shops or on some of the cheeses, leading to further contamination and a longer-lasting outbreak.

However, St-Germain also noted, the outbreaks shed light on substantial gaps in MAPAQ’s system of crisis management, as well as the province’s management of the economic and financial impacts on the cheese industry. It also pointed to gaps in outbreak prevention and regular monitoring of cheese plants and retailers alike, she wrote.

For example, she wrote, some products were recalled prematurely, before a source of contamination had been identified, as only samples of portioned cheese were taken instead of the intact cheese wheels.

And the ministry’s interventions at the retail level were done on a case-by-case basis, with no uniform, systematic approach to sampling, “varying from one business to the other.”

Furthermore, she wrote, the communications work and strategies undertaken by MAPAQ and MSSS failed to fully inform the public in a convincing manner about the basis for the measures taken.

On those points, St-Germain’s report outlined 12 recommendations specifically for MAPAQ, one for the ag and health minstries together and another for MSSS.

Compensation

It’s only fair, St-Germain wrote, to compensate Societe cooperative agricole de l’Ile-aux-Grues and Fromagerie Blackburn, cheesemakers that were subjected by MAPAQ’s recall on the basis of a “partial investigation and incomplete data.” Some of the two companies’ products were unfairly linked to the outbreak even though they were contaminated at the retail level, she wrote.

As well, she recommended financial support for cheesemakers to upgrade their facilities to meet new requirements against contamination. Artisanal cheesemakers, in particular, will find it difficult to fund the upgrades following tighter controls imposed by MAPAQ.

In a separate release Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Laurent Lessard described last summer’s outbreak as a “major crisis” in food quality and food safety in the province, and he still bears much empathy for those who lost loved ones or were sickened.

However, he said he was pleased to see that the report covered many of the same concerns that MAPAQ raised internally after the outbreak and recalls, and that the experience carried important lessons both for the ministry and the broader food industry. Many of St-Germain’s 13 recommendations for MAPAQ, he said, have already been implemented.

Lessard also agreed that the experience has been particularly difficult for artisanal cheesemakers and retailers, but added that all measures have been implemented to get affected industries back up to full speed, including the province’s $8.4 million support and development plan.

The province will also continue to provide support to businesses to bring them in compliance with new pathogen control measures, he said.

However, in a separate release Tuesday, Parti Quebecois ag critic Marie Bouille ripped the province for its poor communication during the outbreak and recalls, and for “unjustly” pointing the finger of blame at cheesemakers.

Bouille said St-Germain’s report shows MAPAQ prematurely recalled cheeses, did a poor job assessing the risk to the public, failed to fully explain its actions and did not worry about the economic consequences of its actions.

“The report confirms one thing,” she said, “Agriculture Minister Laurent Lessard has done his job poorly.”

The provincial government, she said, should have acted well beforehand, citing a 2005 report that recommended all cheeses be tested for listeria before going to market. “True to itself, the government preferred to shelve that report.”

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